Dear Joan: tools for for building community processes to center the healing of rape victims

Dear Joan,

I’m writing to you from the underground music scene of a town that seems big, but is smaller than you’d think.

An individual in our community has admitted to raping three women. His friends all think he has paid enough of a price since he sometimes feels awkward going out. I am disappointed in the way this is being handled, as no one seems sure of what to do, and many want to pretend it is okay now. People still support the band he is in, still go to shows and play shows with him, praise him for his “honesty” in “admitting it” (even though he only admitted it after it became public), and insist he is getting better and deserves a second chance. A lot of this comes from some kind of strange pseudo-hippy “love”/”forgiveness”/”vibe”/”don’t judge” thing which is maybe the worst kind of liberalism? Either way no one is taking account of how supporting him is affecting the survivors.

One of the survivors had the courage to bring her rape out to the public, and that is how all of this became known. Now she has been basically ostracized by the community. Some have done it intentionally, because they think she is “crazy.” Others have done it as a matter of neglect – because they haven’t chosen a side. No one wants to choose a side. But I think that is irresponsible. What do you think?

I do not know the other two survivors, but one of them put posters all over town about what happened to her. She is scared for her life. None of them can access spaces he is in, and I want to change this. I want to form a group to begin opening up spaces for survivors by kindly removing rapists from them. Something has to be done to let survivors know they belong, and that this is their community too. I am deeply afraid that my friend and the other two women will leave our city and he will stay and it will all be forgotten about. I am also afraid he will rape again. He has continued to display predatory behavior. He still tries to get women drunk, and no one calls him out.

I have reached out to a lot of people here and formed a list of people I believe will be “allies,” but it is hard, because people think they are “allies” until the hard work comes, and then people suddenly want to pretend it’s a “both sides are to blame” thing. There are no “both sides” to rape. It is one side who is to blame. So I am building my ally list but I don’t know how effective that will be. Maybe I need to learn to communicate better, or choose allies carefully, and I am open to advice on that as well.

My hope is to get a group that will kindly clear space in venues and bars, and especially at shows, for survivors, by having “protectors” of some kind who will ask rapists to leave. I know other communities have groups that do similar things, but I am just researching this now and I know it is a hard ideal to achieve.

In Solidarity, A Little Less Yuck

 

Dear ALLY,

Thanks for writing in! I should say that I’m not any kind of certified authority on handling rape in community—here at Slingshot, we don’t believe in authorities—but I can certainly share with you my thoughts, and draw from the 15+ years of experience I’ve had dealing with rape, stalking, and sexual violence within community organizations, and also from my experience as a survivor of rape and as a co-counselor to rape victims. When I can, I’ll try to back up my statements with statistics (cuz unlike authoritarians, I don’t think people should believe what I say just cuz I say so) but that said, I’m convinced that pretty much all current datasets on rape are broken due to underreporting & underfunding of research.

First, dang. All I can say is…how does it feel to be the one sane person in a SEA OF FUCKING MORONS? I mean, sorry, but WOW! Clearly, lot of people in your community don’t have a clue what rape is! All this “both sides are to blame” and “he’s been punished enough” bullshit must be super aggravating! It’s that kind of stuff that makes you want to beat your head against a brick wall. GAHHHHHH!

So, when I was in college, one of my friends learned that his little sister had been raped by his dad (~30% of kids who report being raped were raped by a family member1), and my friend did this totally dissociated thing of trying to get his sister to “make up with” his dad. Like, WTF! If someone was mauled by a dog, would you fucking insist that they “make up with” the dog?! That relationship is done. There is no longer a relationship, there is a disaster. Rape isn’t a conflict. There are no two sides to nothing.

I’ve come to learn that hella cognitive dissonance is totally normal when people learn that someone in their life has been raped by someone else in their life. Maybe one of the reasons for this dissonance is the Hollywood stereotype that all rapists are creepy “Jack the Ripper” types—inhuman monsters who spend their lives lurking in dark alleyways with creepy violin music playing in the background. Most people don’t realize that’s it’s not like that at all. It’s more like Battlestar Galatica, like how everyone is surprised when they find out someone’s a cylon cuz “they seemed like a real person!” (cuz, they are real people, duh!)—that’s how rapists are: real people. And they are among us. Totally like cylons. A majority of rapes happen between people who knew each other in advance1, so there’s likely a social network that surrounds the victim and the rapist, and yeah, I guess it’s hard for a lot of people to understand the severity of rape when they just saw the victim and the perpetrator just the other day having such a nice time together, and it doesn’t help when they have this unrealistic image in their heads that rapists are like Freddy Krueger rather than what they are: actual, real people.

I’m sorry to hear that people in your community are calling the victims “crazy.” I wish I could say that’s unusual. I hate to be the one to say it, but in a personality contest between a victim and their rapist, the victim will almost always lose. This is because a serial rapist is more likely to have narcissistic personality2, and because the victim is likely to be dealing with a slew of medical issues in the wake of being raped that are likely to, well, “reduce their social capital.”

A 2010 study by the Center for Disease Control showed that 81% of women who experience rape or gender-based violence report having serious medical consequences3. Rape victims will often have random PTSD triggers, panic attacks, disassociation, flashbacks, suicidal thoughts and behavior, moderate to severe depression, digestive problems, nervous system problems, fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome—not to mention physical wounds that may have been caused during the rape itself. Rape and sexual violence are “a major health problem in the United States” according to the CDC. These are serious medical problems victims are left with. One friend who was raped over a decade ago still has to go to the hospital every couple of months for IBS attacks that started right after her rape. A lot of friends who have experienced rape get panic attacks, which feel like heart attacks—they’re really scary and fuck up your week!

So, being raped and its medical consequences are likely to seriously mess up your social game. Rape victims will be more likely to “flake out” on social events (due to flare-ups of rape-related medical problems). The victim is more likely to yell or act erratic (cuz random trauma triggers can lead to adrenaline rushes, dissociation, and other PTSD symptoms). Also, when triggered, a victim is likely to experience flashbacks of not just the rape but all the harm they’ve ever experienced in their whole dang life—cuz yeah, the synapses for traumatic memories are often bound together in the nervous system and trigger each other.

Serial rapists are able to capitalize off of how predictable these symptoms are. The rapist might use their victim’s state to discredit their claim of having been raped, or, like in the case of the rapist you’re talking about, they might subtly try to frame things as: “Who do you all want in your community, that nervous wreck, or me?”

Five years ago, I was living in a co-op house, and we had a serial assaulter move in who was a PhD student in psychiatry and who proclaimed himself to be an “expert in Nonviolent Communication.” After he’d assault a woman, he’d make a big deal about how she was “yelling” and that this was a form of “emotional violence” and then he’d offer to give her free training in NVC, at which point she’d move out in terror. He’d say to the other housemates: “A lot of insecure women find a strong man like me to be upsetting” and “I refuse to back down when they project their rape trauma onto me.” Like, holy shit! He managed to assault three women before everyone figured out what was going on. Well, no… No one figured it out actually: he was caught in the act by another housemate. What a bummer that no one believed the first victim! But this guy was a smooth operator.

Rapists often put a lot of effort into grooming entire communities to support their behavior. A serial rapist is often surrounded by serial rape apologists. Just look at Harvey Weinstein’s staff: there were several older women on the staff of his company who he’d groomed to say things like “that’s just the way Harvey is—he’s a touchy guy” to victims and concerned observers. The aim of any serial rapist is to train the people around them to make excuses for them and support their behavior so they can keep doing it. What’s crazy is how easily people fall in line and do this.

Colonial capitalism has hecka trained us to rally our care and labor around supporting people who harm others—people who abuse the environment, people who abuse workers, people who abuse indigenous people, people who abuse women, etc. We’re all trained from birth in this broken, unsustainable and stupid culture to form hierarchies that center abusers and excuse and accommodate their behavior. For a whole community to fold itself into a cushy extension of rapists’ raping habits is really no surprise. It’s the norm in capitalist culture, not the exception.

The fact that some people in your community are saying “he’s suffered enough” shows that they are thinking more about punishing the rapist (which is a way of centering the rapist) rather than holding space for the healing of the victims. The community strategy of handling rape must always ever be focused on the victims’ healing and community safety.

Back in 2014, I was teaching a free community writing class and one of my students wrote something that we published in Slingshot. Then we were contacted by someone from out-of-state who said that person had raped someone in their community, and thus should be banned from all of our community spaces in the Bay. I was glad we got the email: I discretely informed several likeminded community members to keep a close watch on the rapist. But were we going to ban the guy? Drive him out of every infoshop, hacker space, and house show in the area? He had already been banned from an entire extensive community in another state, and I believe his reason for moving to our region was to try to rebuild his life. Many of us of course kept an eye on him, and no rapes (that we know) of occurred. But yeah, wow, the fact that those folks in the other city were hellbent on “ban him from everywhere on the planet!” was just nonsensical. Like, the person who sent the email wasn’t the victim, and there was no indication that she was in contact with the victim. Also, based on the info she sent, the victim was going to college in another state! She had never been part of our community nor was she planning to join it. Banning the rapist from our spaces wouldn’t have helped the victim at all. This was just a case of someone punishment-mongering.

A lot of people, rather than holding space for the victims’ stories and healing, will do this self-centered ego-driven thing of taking it upon themselves to punish the rapist. This vigilante bullshit comes from a childish desire to play hero, and is a way of centering yourself rather than the victim. Also, it is a huge reason that many victims don’t speak up: Having big-ego-types walking around talking about how they plan to break the legs of any rapist puts a ton of pressure on the rape victim not to speak up cuz, on top of everything else they’re dealing with, now they have to worry about their rapist’s safety. You could punish and torture a rapist unto infinity, and it will never reverse the harm that was done.

When communities go overboard with punishing a rapist, it also makes it really hard to rally people to respond to the next rape or assault (and this is rape culture—there will be a next time). I’ve totally seen communities do a 180-flip and fail to address future rapes cuz they aren’t comfortable with the level of extreme punishment that went down last time.

Not that over-punishing is what you’re dealing with. You’ve got the opposite shitty community response on your hands: apathy/dissociation. But still, people in your community are latching on to this whole punishment crap, in the form of deciding it’s okay to let him into the victims’ community spaces because “he’s suffered enough.” The punishment paradigm leads people to think that once a rapist has had what to them seems like enough punishment, the situation no longer needs to be addressed. It’s yet another freaking way of throwing victims under the goddamn bus.

When rapists stay in community spaces, it often means their victims have to leave to avoid being re-traumatized by seeing their rapist. Additionally, due to shitty things people tend to say to rape survivors (I’ve compiled a list here: goo.gl/zj6BPc), survivors tend to be re-traumatized when they try to seek support from their community. The fact that you’re working on creating a network of people who kindly ask rapists to leave community spaces for the sake of allowing their victims to be in those spaces is huge! It is also huge for members of the community to educate themselves about what rape does to people, and about how important it is to avoid saying and doing shit that can re-traumatize victims.

I wish we could say that in the Slingshot / Long Haul community, we’ve figured this out, but the truth is, we’re still working through it too. There are always new people who join our community who haven’t yet watched this pattern go down, people who “refuse to take sides.” I wish I could say there was some easy way to convince these folks to be more proactive, but you can’t make up other people’s minds for them. They have to do the work themselves. We have very tragically lost multiple amazing women from our collective who had been victimized by people who used the building or who were also in the collective. For those of us who the victims confided in, we feel like failures for not doing anything fast enough to make the space feel safe for them. Because of our indecisiveness, they ended up re-encountering their perpetrator, and had to leave the collective (and the area) as they grappled with their trauma and their need to find somewhere safe. Those were people who brought wisdom and light to our project and community, and the Slingshot loft will always be just a little bit dimmer now that they are gone.

Holding space for rape victims to heal (rather than centering rapists) has to be a choice. It has to be a conscious, intentional choice on the part of everyone in the community. If your community is failing to have that type of intentionality, well, they should call themselves “consumers” then, rather that “hippies.” Consumers are all about doing whatever is easy at the time at the expense of everyone else and the environment. Hippies, at least the real ones, understand that creating a world where free love and equality are possible takes work. “Everyone gets a blister,” is a local hippy saying, cuz, whether you’re building a Free Speech Stage on the land you’ve just taken from the man (Long Live People’s Park!), or whether you’re building a community process to center the healing of rape victims, building a new, better world takes work. Doing work means you’ll get tired sometimes, but that’s part of what being a real hippie is all about! And being a punk! And a hacker! This is part of building a counter culture that is a true alternative to capitalist rape culture, rather than just replicating it.

Even though it seems like we have a long road ahead of us, the fact that we are able to have this conversation, and that victims feel more confident than ever before in sharing their stories, is a sign that change is coming. For a victim to share their story is a leap of faith. It is up to the community to catch them—to whirl into action and center their healing. A better world is possible, but only if we all put in the work.

Towards something better, Joan

P.S. If anyone reading this feels their space or community has a really awesome set of practices for addressing rape and sexual violence, we’d love to hear about it! We’ll pass along anything you send us to ALLY, and we may even print it in the next issue of Slingshot.